Gabriel Jesus has signed for Arsenal and Raheem Sterling is almost certain to complete his anticipated move to Chelsea in the coming days. Both are intriguing transfers in and of themselves but, together, they represent something very unusual: players rarely move between Big Six Premier League clubs with all parties relatively satisfied with the deal. So what is Manchester City doing in allowing two regular first-team forwards to move to clubs that are, at least to an extent, direct rivals?
Examples of intra–Big Six moves almost always come with an asterisk. Willy Caballero left Man City for Chelsea in 2017 because reserve goalkeepers are an unusual commodity. Juan Mata left Chelsea for Manchester United in ’14 because José Mourinho didn’t rate him. James Milner left Man City for Liverpool in ’15 because his contract had expired, he was keen to play for Liverpool and the sense was (quite wrongly) that at 29 he was entering the twilight of his career. Robin van Persie, Bacary Sagna, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gaël Clichy and Samir Nasri all left Arsenal because the financial strain of the stadium move meant their contract demands could not be met.
It’s true Sterling and Jesus both had only a year left on their deals, and so to that extent it was in City’s interest to sell them now, ensuring a total of roughly $90 million in incoming transfer fees rather than losing both on free transfers next summer. But equally, City could clearly have met their wage demands. City’s wealth is essentially limitless and Financial Fair Play regulations have been increasingly defanged. City clearly reasoned both were expendable. And not only that, but so expendable that they weren’t worried about handing them over to Premier League rivals.
Sterling is 27 and so should be moving into his prime. He scored 58 goals in the last five Premier League seasons while registering 34 assists. He was England’s most effective attacking player as it reached the final of the Euros last summer. His probable signing has not been welcomed with great enthusiasm by at least a section of the Chelsea support, but his goal involvements have been consistent in that period and he has won four Premier league titles.
Gabriel Jesus is 25. He scored 51 goals in the last five Premier League seasons while adding 25 assists. He is a regular Brazil international and has proved himself a diligent presser under his time at City. He, too, has won four Premier League titles.
And yet doubts linger about both. After the 2018 World Cup, Jesus told Brazil coach Tite that he didn’t seem himself as a number nine, preferring to start wide and drift infield. That is an effective role in the modern game, but in his case it seemed to speak of a lack of confidence, perhaps related to the struggles of various Brazil center forwards at World Cups. He has said since joining Arsenal that he is a nine, but will surely spend most of his time dropping off the front line to create space for Arsenal’s fleet of attacking wide players. That Mikel Arteta worked with him as Guardiola’s assistant at Man City, however, must be a benefit.
But like Sterling, there is a sense that Jesus is not a natural finisher. Both, when short of form, can have a tendency to dither, and there are numerous YouTube compilations of Sterling misses, most notoriously the effort he fired over an open net from eight yards out in the Champions League defeat to Lyon.
And that perhaps explains City’s thinking. It has moved to rejig its forward line this summer by bringing in Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund and Julián Álvarez from River Plate. No transfer is without risk, but Haaland’s quality is proven. Álvarez is 22 and very highly rated. Signings from South America can take time to settle in the Premier League, but the implication is that City thinks he is ready.
The logic perhaps runs that City keeps dominating key Champions League games but still loses, as it did in last season’s semifinal against Real Madrid. What it needs is not somebody who will contribute 20–25 goal involvements in the Premier League each season, but a ruthless striker who will take the chances when they matter most.
And as for selling to Arsenal and Chelsea (and defender Nathan Aké is reportedly close to joining Sterling on the way to Stamford Bridge as well), perhaps the feeling at City is that its only real domestic rival is Liverpool. To an extent, arming your other rivals makes them more likely to take points off each other. If City believes, as it should, that it still has a comfortably stronger squad than Chelsea and Arsenal, then increasing their strength may, paradoxically, actually make the league easier to win.
More Soccer Coverage: